One of the well-burnished moments of my college life in Chicago was going to my first baseball game, a Cubs-Cards clash at Wrigley Field in that magical year of whatever it was when baseball was de-Marised (and Maris was de-pantsed). My companions and I had paid a pittance for upper level seats, but being young and cagey, we managed to sneak down to field level.
The grown-in ivy shook like verdant waves along the outfield wall in this temple of sport. From where I sat, these two men, McGwire and Sosa, stood like titans. They made the rest of the field look like children playing in a sandbox. Every person with a seat rose in unison each time these Lords of the Diamond stepped up to the plate. Every sloucher in standing-room-only stood on tiptoe. Mind you, this was early in the season, before the chase of Maris became “The Chase.” And yet it was like people knew they were watching history. Every at-bat took on cosmic significance. Every hack was potentially a homer. They were men of destiny. . . .
Except it didn’t happen that way. Oh, it was a Cubs-Cards game, May 3, 1998. Sosa would hit a dinger that day, while McGwire’s juice would let him down. But I didn’t really notice them. The crowd didn’t rise for their at-bats. The cosmos remained unmoved. And the brick walls of Wrigley are always still brown and exposed in May.
What I remember instead is the crisp spring air, the neighbors barbecuing and watching the game from their rooftop decks across Sheffield Avenue, booze-laden vendors crying “Old Style!” up and down the aisles.
I remember seeing the rooftop across Waveland Avenue behind left-center field painted as an enormous Budweiser ad (RIP), and thinking, at last, now I know what it is to be at a ballpark and take in the Americana!
What I remember most is the girl I went with, and thinking that if only her roommate hadn’t come as well, this would have been the perfect day.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say that we would have been better off watching real children playing in a sandbox for free, rather than pay for this shameful and cynical deception. But for me, it wasn’t about records and glory and the purity of sport. It was about missing the perfect day by the width of a roommate, and realizing that this wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
* * *
This was Beanie Baby giveaway day at Wrigley, and after the game, I saw people outside the stadium hoisting signs offering a cool hundred bells for your Daisy the Cow commemorative Beanie. The promotion wasn’t commemorating Sosa or any other slugger; it was a tribute to Harry Caray, the charismatic and iconic Cubs announcer who had died earlier that year.
Should we be thankful that Caray never lived to see his beloved pastime dragged through the mire? I don’t think he would have liked it, but I think he would believe that the game must go on, even if it continues to wear the stains of a deception it and the fans refuse to take seriously.
Like Beanie Babies, baseball, too, has fallen somewhat in esteem over the past decade. But I believe that this country will rediscover reality one day, and baseball will be restored to what it was when it began, neither a religion nor a scourge, but just a game.
Why do we play games? For the same reason that kids play with Beanie Babies. Because they’re fun.
* * *
O baseball! Tell me stories of the men of days gone by,
Like laurel on your hoary head, once green, now frail and dry.
I weep for Wally Wabash, the Wizard of Walla Walla,
His bat stood five feet tall, his body two heads talla.
Remember Rum Run Rogers, stealing bases in his sleep,
No choice had he since his hango’ers went seven innings deep.
I sing thee, Little Hands McGee, whose glove was small as a flea,
And yet he played that second base like Moses played the sea.
Here’s to you, Ha’Penny Greerson, the southpaw with aim so good,
They said he could hit the testis of choice - and he would.
O baseball! Half-naked we were cradled in your breast,
Half-naked now you stumble to your long deservèd rest.